23: Warrantless surveillance of browse and search history: opt for browser and search privacy

Updated: May 30

Warrantless surveillance of browse and search history ekes by in the US Congress. Steps to minimize damage to browse and search privacy are explored.

Warrantless surveillance

A bill in Congress “... reauthorizes ... intelligence gathering under the Foreign Intelligence and Surveillance Act (FISA) … [and] imposes additional requirements on ... targeting a (1) U.S. person, or (2) federal elected official or candidate.”

A bi-partisan amendment to that bill would “remove internet website browsing information and search history from scope ...”  In other words, without the amendment, the Federal government could access logs of browse and search history without a warrant.

The amendment was co-sponsored by Senator Wyden (D-Oregon) and Senator Daines (R-Montana) who have spoken up against warrantless surveillance of internet browse and search history. As Senator Daines said (see Congressional Record), “The House bill fails to prohibit the warrantless searches of browsing data in internet search history...”

The amendment failed to pass May 13, 2020! 

That means that the US Federal government could surveil logs of your browsing and searching history. Imagine the non-digital analogy of several decades ago that you go to the library and every magazine you read, every book you skim, and every book you check out is potentially visible to the Federal government.

As a side political observation, there were a significant number of votes from both parties on both sides of the amendment. Privacy advocates, as well as those willing to trade privacy for other causes, cut across both liberal and conservative thinkers and across both Democrats and Republicans. Privacy proponents unite civil-liberties advocates who are politically liberal Democrats and libertarian-leaning Republican conservatives. Note that we urged you to reject the EARN IT Act due to its anti-privacy implications, but it, too, is co-sponsored by one liberal Democrat (Senator Blumenthal, Connecticut) and one conservative Republican (Senator Graham, South Carolina).

Actions recommended

If you value your ability to browse and search the internet without the risk of surveillance, it is worth repeating several recommended actions posted in previous blog entries:

  1. Choose a browser, such as Firefox, Safari, Brave, or Tor (for the technology savvy) that by default does not track browsing activities and will more generally reduce personal data collected

  2. Choose a search engine that by default does not log search activity, such as DuckDuckGo or StartPage, or if you stay with Google Search, at least change key settings to attain greater search engine privacy.

  3. Use VPN online to obfuscate your device IP address and thus make it harder to reveal your identity.

  4. Write to your legislative representative.  If they voted for the amendment, thank them and urge them to push for approval at a future opportunity. If they voted against the amendment, express your disappointment. Check how Senators voted here.

Take Away

The Foreign Intelligence and Surveillance Act (FISA) renewed without a proposed amendment that would have excluded individuals’ internet search and browse history from warrantless surveillance. Now, more than ever, we recommend using privacy-centered browsers, search engines, and VPN software, as well as expressing your concerns to your legislative representative.

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